Category Archives: Physics

Ten Incredible Pearls of Wisdom From Great Minds

ten wisdom dawkins

The world can be a confusing place, but academics, authors, artists, poets and philosophers are just some of the many who have tried to explain things. In my wanderings through scientific texts, popular non-fiction and and documentaries, there have been a few stand out comments.

Whether it be Malcolm Gladwell’s keen insight into human nature, or Carl Sagan’s prophetic view of the world, all have resonated in some way beyond comprehension. They seem intrinsically correct, and universally true.

So here are ten incredible pearls of wisdom from the great minds.

1. On The Origins And Nature Of Human Behaviour

‘Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.’ – Richard Dawkins, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and popular-science writer.

As the current face of evolutionary theory, Dawkins’ is no stranger to controversy. And although his work has revolutionised our understanding of the natural world, his opinions about how we must overcome our nature have caused the most conversation.

ten wisdom dawkins

The nature of life is conservative, selfish and driven by unconscious forces. Dawkins’ understands that to ‘be good’ you must understand our basic urges. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Dawkins’ is very aware how our evolutionary history, and how the selective pressures of the environment and each other, have shaped our behaviour. And in his book ‘The Selfish Gene‘, gives us to pause to consider the true morality of nature.

What is ‘natural’ isn’t inherently ‘moral’, and what we consider ‘moral’ is not inherently survival.  So Dawkins’ asks us to understand our primal natures if we are to best them.

2. On The Power Of Words

‘To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy. ‘ – Bertrand Russell, Philosopher, Logician and Nobel Prize winner.

Although Russell is best known as a philosopher, his life of work reached deeper into the shared mind of society than we realise. By studying and writing on the academic disciplines of logic, mathematics and epistemology (the study of knowledge,) he became a strong advocate for peaceful societal reform.

A man’s words may make beautiful the macabre. Russell relied on logic to unify humanity toward a common good. Image courtesy of Flickr.

And most noteworthy are his observations of how people can be manipulated by words. The use of eloquent language, a flowery vocabulary or poetic arrangement can make the terrible seem empowering.  You need only read the words of Nazi spokesperson Joseph Goebbels to see how language can betray human decency.

We must understand a man’s motivation, and place it in the context of the sociopolitical climate, to truly understand what may be hiding behind the words.

3. On The Risks Of Virtue

‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosopher, Author and culture commentator.

As the central reference to ‘Nihilism‘, Nietzsche examined the purpose of life without purpose. His infamous quote ‘God is dead‘ instilled the idea that the concept and role of any God is limited, and that through pain and suffering we may choose a virtuous path.

wisdom nietzsche

Nietzsche warned us not to become monsters in the pursuit of greatness. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Whilst an avid skeptic of religion in general, his infamous parable ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra‘ presented, in humbling terms, the true insanity of zealotry. He warns us not to lose ourselves in purpose, and to recognise how a belief in achieving ‘the good’ can lead to evil.

And in a world where popular influencers claim a moral authority, his words could not carry greater weight.

4. On The Importance Of Responsibility

‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.’ – Jean Paul Satre, Philosopher.

Regarded by many as the father of ‘Existentialism‘, Satre believed that existence precedes essence, and that we must find our own way in a meaningless universe. But in accepting this freedom in action, we cannot ignore our role in what comes next.

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Satre  believed that with action comes responsibility, and with freedom comes the same. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Many existentialists reject the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour being an inherent natural motivation, and instead suggest that we make our decisions based on complex (although often incorrect,) contextual interpretations.

Not only does this mean we must be aware of our own limits, but take responsibility when they are exposed.

5. On The Stoicism Of Knowledge

The older I get, the more I understand that the only way to say valuable things is to lose your fear of being correct. – Malcolm Gladwell, Author and Journalist.

Famed author of ‘David And Goliath’, ‘Outliers‘ and ‘The Tipping Point‘, Gladwell explores the interconnectedness of humanity with the world around it. In his poignant prose he unravels what may seem miraculous, often challenging widely held beliefs.

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Gladwell has exposed and explained the hidden reasons behind cultural success and individual power. To question convention is as useful as it is risky. Image courtesy of Flickr.

His work tells us not only to dig deeper to explain the world, but that explanations may exist beyond the obvious. He also extols the value of expressing new ideas, fearlessly with no regard for your own ego.

We must challenge convention to find the truth, even if it risks our reputations.

6. On The Insights Given By Friendship

‘You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps.’ – Sam Harris, Philosopher and Neuroscientist.

Although more likely to be a figure of repute for his views on religion, Harris is a distinguished author and surveyor of the interface between neuroscience, morality and the world at large.

A fierce critic of authoritarian dogma, Harris asks us to take responsibility for building our knowledge toward creating a better world.

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Sam Harris is a vocal critic of authoritarian regimes and their numerous abuses. Image courtesy of Flickr.

He also asserts that morality itself exists independently of religious doctrine, and empowers a human approach toward a coalescence of society. And as a neuroscientist, he is all to aware of how our behaviour may make us, or betray our intentions.

So if  you want the measure of a man, consider who they value as friends.

7. On The Illusion Of Simplicity.

‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’ – Ben Goldacre, Physician and Author.

The namesake of his popular book tells us a lot about Ben Goldacre. An academic and scourge of pseudoscience and ‘folk wisdom’, Ben uses evidence to expose the lies many are sold by the few to the many. He also tells that what is made simple, or appears so, may not be.

wisdom goldacre bad science

Ben Goldcare makes it his mission to challenge misleading beliefs, expose bad science and explain the misunderstood. Image courtesy of Flickr.

What is claimed to simple may be complex, and what lies between may be inaccurate, underhanded and deliberate.

And with that, we should try to understand the motives behind simplification, and why it is so easy for us to be sold a lie. Amongst his many targets is Homeopathy and the risks involved in being misled.

8. On the Arrogance Of The Human Mind.

‘See that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man.’ – Richard Feynman, Theoretical Physicist, Nobel Prize winner and  Science Communicator.

Whilst it may seem odd that a theoretical physicist is so humble about uncertainty, Feynman shows us just how wonderful the universe is.

Although a pioneer in our understanding of the nature of our reality, he recognises that there is simply more we don’t know.

feynman physics quote wisdom

Feynman studied and revealed some of the most hidden secrets of our universe, but in doing so realised that was is unknown is our greatest teacher. Image courtesy of Flickr.

The intricacies of our reality, currently hazy between the infinitesimally small and unimaginably large, appear to us through rigorous questioning and often teach us that our presuppositions are not just wrong,  revealing a drastic flaw in human understanding.

We claim to be intelligent, and yet this intelligence often blinds us to our own folly. We must revel in the wonder of whats left to wonder about, and not be afraid to look stupid doing so.

9. On The Value Of Choice And Humility

‘I was never born to write. I was taught to write. And I am still being taught to write.’ – Atul Gawande, Surgeon, Research and Author.

If you are a doctor, you no doubt are aware of Gawande. Whilst a strong advocate of evidence and comprehensive approaches, Gawande has also ventured into a philosophical musing of the human condition.

gawande life wisdom

As a surgeon, Gawande not only saves lives, but has taken it upon himself to understand what the true value of life is. Image courtesy of Flickr.

In his best-selling book, ‘Being Mortal’, Gawande examines the true value of human life, and what we lose and gain as we age. And true to his nature, he treats himself with a level of skepticism coherent with his humble world view.

We are born with a choice in a difficult world, expertise is only a measure of dedication tempered by self criticism, and arrogance undermines greatness.

10. On The Size Of Our Influence

‘The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.’ – Carl Sagan,  Astronomer, Astrophycist and Pulitzer Prize winner.

To reduce the works of Sagan to one sentence would vastly sell him short. Not only did he lead the way in popularising science, but housed a mind so in tune with the human condition that his loss is truly universal.

Having inspired legions of scientists, including protege Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sagan’s holistic approach to science and its delicate implications toward society rings as true today as it did years ago.

sagan quote wisdom science

Carl Sagan was not just a pioneer of knowledge, but arguably one of humanity’s greatest teachers. Image courtesy of Flickr.

He was exceptionally kind, humble and patient, expressing the very tenets he postulated as a universal ideal.

Sagan reminds us that the true beauty of the universe is not just in its nature, or its creation, but in our pursuit of explanation and the inherent ability to use this knowledge to better ourselves and future generations.

And that perspective matters, for the universe is much greater than such complex molecular machines as we. We are so very small, but in that there is much to be learned, gained and valued.

So Much Left To Learn

Ten quotes simply isn’t enough to even scratch the surface of the grand insights accumulated in the wealth of human knowledge, or beyond it. And with each quote, you may have taken your own interpretation of meaning and purpose.

Perhaps you disagree with some, or worry that they are incongruent with each other. But I am willing to contend the opposite, that each shares a unity in placing the pursuit of knowledge through humility, truth and beneficence as a true virtue.

So what are your favourite quotes? What and who has changed your life? Let us know in the comments. And if you believe, like I do, that knowledge is best shared, then help us by sharing this article with your friends and family.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

Note from the Author: Upon writing this article I became very aware of just how much I don’t know, and how much I can learn. I feel it only right to follow up on this article with more information about the works and lessons of the persons featured. There are many greats not featured on this list, but don’t worry, I will find ways to include them. I do not value my opinion of what is great  above any others, I only wish to signpost what is already there.

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Top 5 Incredible Discoveries In Space

pillars of creation top5 universe

The Universe is really, really big. And there is a lot out there. Whether you have an interest in astronomy or not, the very wonder of the Universe is, well, universal. From Interstellar’s black hole to the curious ‘Pillars Of Creation‘, there is no denying that space holds a certain beauty. And under that aesthetic, the very laws of physics not only explain the beauty, but add to it. So today, I am taking on you a whistle-stop tour through our Universe, showing you what I feel is the best of the best. So as Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says; ‘Come with me.’

Number 1: Cassiopeia A

top5 universe star supernova

Cassiopeia A. Image courtesy of Robert Sullivan

Cassiopeia A is what remains of a ‘supernova’ (an exploding star.) And its actually not that far away, at least in Universal terms. Situated about 11,000 lightyears away in our Milky Way. Not only is it an incredible sight, but also the strongest source of radio emissions beyond our solar system. These emissions are some of the many we receive every day, and others like them provide an  exciting avenue for detecting alien life.

Number 2: M101, The Pinwheel Galaxy

top5 galaxy supermassive black hole

The Pinwheel Galaxy. Image courtesy of Rob Sullivan.

The Pinwheel Galaxy is a spiral galaxy located in the Ursa Major constellation (the Big Bear.) At around 170,000 lightyears in diameter, it dwarfs our own Milky Way. And houses around 1 trillion stars. But unlike lots of galaxies, it seems to lack a central ‘supermassive black hole‘ at it’s centre. It’s mesmerising shape is a result of its rotation and gravity, as well as the influence of the gravity of other nearby Galaxies.

Number 3: The Pillars Of Creation

pillars of creation top5 universe

The Pillars of Creation. Image courtesy of Jack Jacowski

No list of Universal art would be complete without The Pillars of Creation. Found in the Eagle Nebula are part of a ”stellar nursery”, a huge expanse of material from which new stars are born. Our own sun was forged deep in the heart of a such a nursery. But the Pillars give us a glimpse back in time. The myriad colours represent elements present in space, such as red for sulphur  and green for hydrogen. But, like any nursery, they won’t be around forever. Eventually, cosmic winds will simply blow them apart.

Number 4: The V838 Monocerotis Halo

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The Monocerotis Halo. Image courtesy of Maddox63.

This image captures the odd expansion and ‘echo’ of Monocerotis. The ‘halo’ itself is an artefact created by reflections of interstellar dust. The red focus is caused by the giant star itself.  During the event the star became 60,000 times more luminous than our sun. NASA followed by the phenomenon over January 2002, recording the expansion of the halo and sudden dimming of the star itself.

Number 5: Hercules A

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Hercules A. Image courtesy of Hubble Heritage

This interesting phenomenon shows two high energy plasma jets ejected by a supermassive black hole. These jets are usually a result of the high gravitational energy of a black hole, and the ring like structures outside the jets suggest that these are not the first. Hercules A is around 2.1 billion light years away. Not only do these jets provide a fascinating sight, but also tell us new things about radio waves emitted in deep space.

So thats it, a short jaunt through the Universe. But there is much more out there, so why not find your favourite and let us know? And as always, if you liked it, share it!

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr. Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates.If you liked this article and want to see more, check out Ben’s work with PORP.

 

 

 

 

In Reality Just A Dream? (You Will Need A Cup Of Coffee For This One!)

You can’t leave the park if you stay on the rides boy. Stop being a tourist and take a look behind the curtain.”

The idea that everything we know ‘is a lie’ and we have been dreaming all of this time pervades culture en masse; From Plato to the Wachowskis, the possibility that we are all collectively experiencing a simulated reality is a juicy subject for discussion. But there is something to this idea. If we are in a simulation, how would we know? How might we begin to prove this? Defining a hyperobject (or a hyper-hyperobject), such as reality itself, is difficult. We come up like the fish searching for water. It is everything to the fish,  so where do we even begin with being?

A Philosophical Dream

The human mind is not equipped to answer the big questions very well. In fact, our very logic is based on very restrictive parameters.  Our understanding of distances, time and flying things is limited to what we see day to day. This is why we are easily tricked by the massive or very small, our brains aren’t evolved to make sense of the information. Or indeed, there has been no demand to do so that restricts our survival as a species. And answering whether our Universe is in fact ‘real’ isn’t a question that would have vexed our ancestors, so its little wonder we have trouble with it. Today’s big questions confuse yesterdays brain.

Questioning the nature of reality is one of those big questions. Take optic illusions and hallucinations for example, or the auditory hysteresis as best demonstrated by ‘Laurel’ or ‘Yanny‘. We have a limited number of sensory cues which we can attach to our environment. When we try to cut corners, our brains attempt to fill the gap and make mistakes. Our brain will attempt to make sense of ambiguity by pushing previous experience on to it. VSauce has a great video explaining how and why this can happen, so take a look. So knowing this, where do we know where objective reality stops, and our own shortcuts begin? What is truly real outside of our own interpretation?

simulation reality descartes science physics philosophy dream

Rene Descartes – Philosopher and Pioneer 

This idea a, that reality is not ‘real’ is not so foreign to us as it may seem. The first consideration of this with which most people are familiar is perhaps the cogito ergo sum of René Descartes: ‘I think, therefore I am‘. This simple statement was the basic building block Descartes used to establish his metaphysical philosophy. He reasoned that, as we know the senses can be misleading, everything which he perceives may be the illusion of a clever and malign demon. If this is the case, he would have difficulty in establishing which percepts were real and which were not, as each one might be designed to fool him. Although this touches on the idea of a ‘false reality’, it appears to appeal to some higher power ‘tricking us.’

Although a powerful idea, it doesn’t answer the question objectively but actually throws another layer of faith on the issue.

Descartes’ response to this unusual problem was to throw the whole thing out; he only knew that he was thinking. Thus, Descartes knew that he existed but about the rest, he could not sure. This was a logical move, as he realized that objective realities would be consistent regardless of who perceived them, only the inferred reality (a very personal one,) would be his alone. Obviously, we can all infer the same when seeing an apple (and tend to, its red, hard, tasty,) so there is something consistent. But even then, the ‘essence’ of the object considered may be inferred differently by everyone, and you would never know quite how (i.e is my red your red?)

This was termed methodic doubt or Cartesian scepticism. The take-home message is that seeing is not believing. The extension of this, Solipsism, is the belief that you are the only aware rational agent (agent meaning one capable of observing and influencing.) From a simulation perspective, it means that you are the only ‘real’ person. Of course, our video games are populated by Non-Player Characters (Cortana in Halo, Navi in Zelda.) If we are in a simulation, it is more likely that you are not ‘real’. Why would a simulation be built for us alone?

Of course, this is a basis for a line of thought, not an encouragement to live your life in this way. People still look both ways before crossing the street. An NPC is not benevolent and doesn’t exist to help you by nature (i.e any character who attacks you in a game.) Solipsism, as understood by Karl Popper, is not a falsifiable hypothesis. Traditional scientific method seeks to disprove ideas via a null hypothesis (the chance that the association between X and Y is due to chance). Solipsism cannot meaningfully be disproved in this way (the death of the main agent ends the argument, one way or the other). This doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, but that solipsism is in the hands of philosophy over science.

Which is an uncomfortable position to be in. If you can’t objectively prove it, or at least reliably disprove it, nothing can be concluded. Popper himself is aware of this and forms the basis of his work.

We can approach this problem from the other direction; that is to say, by considering the ethics of simulation after the fact. As software becomes more advanced and hardware becomes more capable, our simulations or the possibility of any simulation becomes more sophisticated. The simulated minds we might develop could be more complex and we have every reason to suppose that we might pursue this. The map might start to look more and more like the territory.

science popper simulation descartes dream

Karl Popper – Father of Falsificationism and proponent of reasoning

These sim people (sims?) would have behavior like ours, they might even have thoughts like ours. At some point, they might become indistinguishable from us and there are ethical considerations to running this. We do not consider the ethics of running a sim, thus any advanced civilization is unlikely to do this either. The economist Robin Hanson recommended that anyone living in a simulation better be as entertaining as they can, otherwise they might get switched off. An uncomfortable thought. So if we are simply lines of code, it makes sense for that code to be useful. Although we can see that ‘bad humans’ (Hitler as a prime example,) seemed to operate for years before ‘termination.’

Clearly, either this isn’t true, or Hitler’s suicide was a programmed termination carried out as volitional. We couldn’t be certain either way. Popper once again becomes very relevant, as we have no way of proving any hypothesis of even this one act.

These sim people would be ‘p-zombies’ or philosophical zombies. A p-zombie is not a horror movie villain. They look like people (or sims) and we cannot tell them apart, even from their reactions. If you tickle them, they laugh and if you pinch them, they would cry. However, they do not feel that indescribable sensation (‘qualia’). At some point, surely this becomes indistinguishable also? A simulant human such as found in Blade Runner was virtually human, and Robin William’s Bicentennial Man was actually declared human as ‘he’ became ethically synonymous with his organic peers.

bicentennial man williams science dream plato descartes

Robin William’s Bicentennial Man achieved human status through consciousness.

So we have established a reasonable proposal that these simulations are possible (although not provable only within philosophy.) We have now a frame of understanding with which to appreciate this issue. Next, we must turn theory into practice. How do we find the proof?

 

A ‘Physical’ Dream

The best way to analyse the problem of our potential simulation is to look at how we would do it. We need to examine how we build simulations and models. What limits do we put on them and how does that map onto what we have observed in the universe? After all, we have built simulations to model economic or anthropological behavior and VR goggles encourage us to leap into cyberworlds, is it that unrealistic that these might become more sophisticated and take on lives of their own? And what would reassure us that we weren’t indeed sentient ‘code’? Are we virtual reality convinced of physicality because of that same programming?

This prospect is not that unrealistic according to Hans Moravec, an Austrian futurist. Eventually, a civilization of some sort or another will become highly technologically advanced. This civilisation will be able to mass produce self-contained virtual simulations. They might do this for entertainment purposes or to model certain situations, as we do. These widespread simulated realities may become so numerous that any thinking entity has a greater chance of being inside one than out. Simply put, if the code can perceive and experience, how would it know if it was real or code? And if most of the ‘entities’ in a given universe are code, statistically you are more likely to be one of them.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist, George Smoot, encourages us to examine the basic physical constants which govern the universe. In his opinion, the fact that our environment is quantized (‘fuzzy on a small scale’, think of it as pixellation) so that physics works differently on a large scale compared to a small one may be a way of saving space an computational power. This discrete-ness is our binary. Basically, the way the Universe works, the rules it plays by, aren’t there by chance. They are created by a programmer, and that the base levels of ‘reality’ such as quantum physics, are an example of this.

dream plato science simulation

In physics our universe is quantised. 10 points to Gryffindor if you get the joke

Its just data, and since the small doesn’t reliably approximate to the big (i.e no one has developed a Unified Theory of quantum vs classical physics, it might be because a programmer has made a subroutine to relate the two to save data.) He also points to entangled states as another ‘simulation memory’-saving device. Other people take the computer science element a little further and examine Planck lengths, absolute zero and the speed of light. These unbending limitations could also better enable such a simulation to run smoothly.

So what we know about writing code, the concessions we make for ‘functionality’ may be present in the Universe itself. This is disconcerting because it speaks of ‘design.’ And we can see it. Its like Halo’s Master Chief realizing that the loading screens are actually real.

Tying The Physical To The Philosophical – A Dream Becomes Real

Back to philosophy again with the anthropic principle; the idea that the universe is meant for conscious minds to inhabit and observe it. There are two variants to this idea: the weak and the strong. The weak anthropic principle posits that we are only able to observe our universe because of the presets producing its formation. If the big bang never happened, or the earth was too far away from the sun, our civilization would never have arisen. Thus it is easy to say ‘of course the universe was made for us’, if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here to make that observation. A million other universes with different laws of physics or other presets might exist, but we’d never know because we are unable to observe them.

The strong variant of this argument goes similarly. It states that the scale of time and place in the universe is such that life must arise within it somewhere. Given how many billions of years and how large it is, there is a strong probability that intelligent life will come about and begin asking questions. However, this is a circular argument, suggesting that the proof in the pudding is that since we can question, the universe exists for it to be so questioned. Once again we are visited by the idea of a simulation.

IYou can consider further what the anthropic principles might mean for our position in the grand scheme of things. At this point we might speculate that if simulations are powerful and advanced enough, we could have sims running simulations and circles within circles. I don’t want to linger on who or what would do this; that takes the frame of this discussion from the strange into solipsism and mental illness. But if we are to entertain the philosophical argument for simulation, and note that physics may give it strength, we are met with an uncomfortable ‘reality’.

Or at least, we may be programmed to.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr George Aitch and Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of their affiliates.  Article written by Dr Aitch and embellished and edited by Dr Janaway (But the vast majority goes to Dr Aitch!!) Images courtesy of flickr.

Sources

  1. Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton (2013) University of Minnesota Press
  2. The Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes (1641)
  3. Mind Children by Hans Moravec (1995) Harvard University Press
  4. You are a Simulation & Physics Can Prove It: George Smoot at TEDxSalford (watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Chfoo9NBEow)
  5. https://www.simulation-argument.com
  6. Image of Rene Descartes
  7. Image of Karl Popper
  8. Image of Robin Williams
  9. Image of Halloween costume (Walter White.)

Should We Fear Asteroids? There Are An Awful Lot Up There… And One Might Be Heading Right For Us.

There may be very large reason that Dinosaurs aren’t around. A giant ball of rock, metal and fire hurtling at thousands of miles an hour into the Earth. But that’s ancient history right? Well, maybe not. Asteroids are more common that you think. And if you keep an eye on the news, we might be in for a close call relatively soon. But just how big is the risk? And what can we do about it?

Warning: Giant Rocks ahead.

A Galactic Swarm of Killer Asteroids

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn, No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of? – William Shakespeare, Hamlet.

In a popular lecture, Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson jokes about his new name for ‘Near Earth Objects’. These ‘objects’ are giant rocks within our solar system or have an orbital path crossing it. Neil suggests something a little less technical, ‘Killer Asteroids’. And he isn’t wrong. Although most small rocks burn up in our atmosphere, the big ones are a real problem.

Current estimates suggest that there at least 150 million rocks  greater than 100m wide flying around our solar system. That number doesn’t even consider what is hurtling inward from deep space. Although most are unlikely a threat, we don’t get much notice when one decides to visit. But where do they come from, and how can we predict their journeys?

An Asteroids Home

‘Knowing it and seeing it are two different things’ Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay

Its easy to classify the home of an asteroid. You can say ‘comes from within our solar system’ or ‘comes from outside of it’. Within our solar system there is one large asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, likely formed of debris left over from the formation of the planets. At the edge of our system there is the Kuiper Belt, (or more accurately orb), a tremendous interstellar cloud of icy rocks.

Most of the asteroids we encounter come from these two sources, but rarely something can be hurtled our direction from far away. These ‘Deep Space‘ asteroids are the true travellers, often traversing billions of miles of deep space. They may come from a colossal rock reservoir called the Oort Cloud, although we haven’t directly observed it yet.

So what guides these things? Do they have it in for us?

Gravity’s Missiles

“Sometimes I think gravity may be death in disguise. Other times I think gravity is love, which is why love’s only demand is that we fall.” – Shaun David Hutchinson

Asteroids, like the planets, orbit based on the principles of Gravity. Gravity is inversely powerful with distance (i.e it gets weaker the further you go,) but also grows with size. Things are said to ‘have gravity’, although the force itself is not quite understood. Nonetheless we understand its effect in space. Objects will ‘orbit’ around larger ones, at a path and speed dependent on their initial velocity and the gravity of other objects around it.

Stable orbits (like ours around the Sun,) differ from those orbits of many objects ‘caught’  by gravity. ‘Long Period Comets‘ for example have highly elliptical orbits, flying far into space before returning. When a large object passes causes a gravitational flux, things can fly off course. For us, that means the occasional flurry of Asteroids from the Kuiper Belt or beyond.

So, is one coming for us? And what can do about it?

Yes, There Is.

Dan, we didn’t see this thing coming? Well, our object Collison budget’s a million dollars, that allows us to track about 3% of the sky, and beg’n your pardon sir, but it’s a big-ass sky. – Armageddon 

In 2004 Astronomers made a startling discover. A huge asteroid named Apophis seemed scarily likely to hit us. But after modelling its trajectory after a 2014 flyby, it seems its chances to hit us will diminish in future (first in 2029, then 2036.) What worried us the most was not that it exists, but that it was spotted so late.

We can only watch a tiny percent of the sky at a time, and we miss things a lot. Chances are that you knew nothing of 2004 BL86, a mountain sized asteroid that passed us by in 2015. In fact, NASA warns us that if a ‘Doomsday’ asteroid were to appear, we would have ‘zero warning’.  Our first sign would be a flash of light, quickly followed by death.  However, if we did spot one by chance, we would have decades notice.

And in the cold reaches of space, there are a lot of candidates.

So what can we do? Short of spending huge amounts of time watching the sky, can we blow them up like in Armageddon? Well actually Yes. NASA have actually begun the design of a spacecraft to deliver nuclear warheads. The target is Bennu, an asteroid with a 1/2700 chance of hitting us in 2135. Short of that, other plans could include using gravity to nudge an asteroid out of orbit.

 

Watch The Skies

So the news isn’t that great. If we spot one, we have a while to plan, but if we don’t, we are doomed. But don’t lose hope, the chances of being hit by something big enough to wipe us out are low, and technology is improving every day. Asteroids are just another evolutionary pressure, and at some point any spacefaring civilisation will have to learn to deal with them.

We have done well so far.

What’s Next?

  • Learn more about our imminent cosmic death.
  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article.
  • Give this a share if you found it interesting.
  • Let me know what you think in the comments below or on social media.
  • Donate. For just the price of a coffee you can help us Change The World.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Images courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight.

Sources

  1. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/extinction/dinosaurs/asteroid.html
  2. https://www.universetoday.com/97571/how-many-asteroids-are-out-there/
  3. https://www.space.com/19221-asteroid-apophis-earth-safe-2036.html
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wp6cnp1kZBY&t=3s
  5. http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/
  6. http://thesolarsystem.wikia.com/wiki/Asteroid_belt
  7. https://lco.global/spacebook/planets-and-how-they-formed/
  8. https://www.space.com/16144-kuiper-belt-objects.html
  9. http://astronomy.swin.edu.au/cosmos/O/Oort+Cloud
  10. https://www.space.com/11093-photos-asteroids-deep-space-rocks.html
  11. https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/what-is-gravity/en/
  12. https://www.space.com/448-problem-gravity-mission-probe-strange-puzzle.html
  13. https://www.space.com/19226-asteroid-apophis-gives-earth-a-close-shave-in-2029-infographic.html
  14. https://www.space.com/28363-huge-asteroid-earth-flyby-webcast.html
  15. https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2013/01/10/we-probably-wouldnt-even-see-a-doomsday-asteroid-until-it-was-too-late/#7ad541517735
  16. https://futurism.com/government-plans-spacecraft-will-blow-up-asteroid-too-close-earth/
  17. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14414-gravity-tractor-could-deflect-asteroids/

Ever Wondered Who You Are? Stop Waiting And Find Out.

You are a human. One of billions alive today, and one of many more that have passed on. You are built of biological tissues that work harmoniously to stay alive, requiring energy to remain altogether, reproduce and, eventually, die. Given the apparent silence of the Universe (where are all the aliens?!) our type of ‘complex life’ seems very rare indeed. But who are you? Where did you come from? And where the hell is everyone else?

Genesis

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – Genesis 1, The Holy Bible (New International Version.)

Whether you believe in God or not, the Universe had a beginning (or atleast a defined start to its current iteration.) Big Bang or Simulation, we are 13.8 billion years (or a few thousand if you are religious,) into its life. The Earth came into being around 4.5 billion years ago, likely due to the accumulation of interstellar particles under gravity. And this seems common, in the known universe planets number in the many trillions.

From this perspective, we are not that special. There are trillions of planets in a huge Universe (possibly one of many.) But, there is something that sets us apart (clue, its you.)

Molecules And Man

Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is’ – Albert Camus, Novelist, Playwright and Essayist

Over our relatively short stage-time (a tiny fraction of what the Universe will likely live before becoming an entropic, cold wasteland,) Earth has been home to something truly spectacular. Life. Whether it be the pet project of a deity (which Science would lead you to disregard,) or something to do with molecular replication, you cannot deny that it is special. Why? Because we haven’t seen it anywhere else (yet!)

Current theories propose that certain molecular configurations of highly reactive atoms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen,) began to replicate due to their increased stability and preferential ability to induce change in free atoms floating near by. If you have studied biology, its a little like the ‘induced‘ reaction of enzymes. But on a simple level, becoming more complicated over time.

‘We are all survival machines, but ‘we’ does not mean just people’ – Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Chances are that this type of life is fairly common, as given the large numbers of planets out there, even with a tiny fraction of chance, some would have created the same tiny ‘creatures’ (if you will.) It may very well be that we spot such simple life on Saturn’s moon of Titan, or deep in Martian rock (and some suggest we already have!)

But when did these collections of molecules become more complex? And how? The symbiotic theory suggests that large molecules engulfed smaller to create the first eukaryotes (i.e. multicellular organisms,) which then coalesced to create those with different systems. These were ‘biological’, and relied on interactions between different parts to stay ‘alive’.

Evolution, the scientific theory that attempts to explain life, makes two strong points:

  1. Individual variation in a species will occur by chance (i.e when our genes replicate, they make mistakes, giving a different appearance, behaviour or some other trait.)
  2. If this individual variation is ‘adaptive’, i.e it means it will benefit the individual and species overall, it will likely become predominant in the species (sounds a bit like the molecules right?)

TLDR: Humans are just the current species specific iteration of a long chain or organisms. Cue the book burning.

Something Special (?)

Is mankind alone in the universe? Or are there somewhere other intelligent beings looking up into their night sky from very different worlds and asking the same kind of question? – Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist, Turtle-Neck Enthusiast.

So likelihood is we are the end result of endless generations of molecules, subject to evolutionary pressures and bound by the physical laws of the universe, slowly becoming more and more like us (and other creatures.) But this seems entirely natural, and almost inevitable.  But we don’t see it everywhere in the universe, and this is called the Fermi Paradox.

Actually, The Drake equation suggests that given even restrictive rules, there should be at least 100,000 to  15 million civilizations out there. Even with modifications, we should still see thousands.

SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence,) is a large array of radar dishes scanning the cosmos. It is pointed toward areas of interest, looking for radio waves from far-flung civilisations. These scientists look for certain signals, such as familiar universal numbers, primes, repeating patterns or something else irregular.) So far, aside from the WOW signal, nothing particularly special has turned up.

We seem to be alone.

But are we really? The Universe is very old, and the laws governing what we understand life needs aren’t very forgiving. We need a certain gravity, heat, energy and abundancy of atoms, time and space. The chances are that even with this caveat, life is out there. But we may never see it, and there are reasons why (stay tuned.)

Who Are You?

For now, when you ask yourself who you are, muse on our shared history. Don’t worry so much about social labels, age or race. If you dare, ignore species altogether. The answer is very humbling and can be expressed in one sentence.

You are a biomass of self-believing consciousness, built from familiar atoms under restrictive universal laws, tuned by selective environmental pressures, and just a small part of something much beyond your comprehension.

And that, for me at least, is pretty freeing.

What’s Next?

  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article.
  • Give this a share if you found it interesting.
  • Let me know what you think in the comments below or on social media.
  • Donate. Running this blog requires coffee.
  • Learn more about our history by reading Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything.’ (Seriously, do it!)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Felix Jody Kirnawan

Sources

  • https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=genesis+1&version=NIV
  • https://www.space.com/25126-big-bang-theory.html
  • https://www.space.com/24054-how-old-is-the-universe.html
  • https://www.space.com/32543-universe-a-simulation-asimov-debate.html
  • https://www.universetoday.com/75805/how-old-is-the-earth/
  • www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3455512/Earth-really-special-None-700-million-trillion-planets-known-universe-similar-study-finds.html
  • https://www.spaceanswers.com/deep-space/what-is-heat-death/
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Albert-Camus
  • https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/what-is-gravity/en/
  • https://study.com/academy/lesson/induced-fit-enzyme-model-definition-theory-quiz.html
  • https://www.space.com/25219-drake-equation.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation
  • https://www.britannica.com/science/evolution-scientific-theory
  • https://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html
  • https://uk.news.yahoo.com/mars-fossils-curiosity-rover-team-questions-report-potential-120314046.html
  • https://www.seti.org/
  • https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140316-carl-sagan-science-galaxies-space/

The sources above are true as of 17/3/18. Feel free to discredit them, it only brings us closer to the truth. My feelings won’t be hurt.

 

 

 

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